Corn: nutrition and benefits
Sometimes known as ‘yellow gold’ because of its many uses, corn, or maize, is one of the world’s most popular cereal grains. Versatile and tasty, it has found its way into a wide variety of food products, including corn flakes, tortillas, tortilla chips, polenta, cornmeal, corn flour, corn syrup, and corn oil to name just a few.
But what do we really know about corn? In recent years it has gained a somewhat dubious reputation, primarily due to fears about intensive industrial farming and GMO crops. Most corn produced in the US is genetically modified in some way, to improve yield, taste, resistance to pests, or for a variety of other reasons, and no negative health outcomes have yet been discovered. If you are still concerned about GMO, or the environmental impact of industrial farming, some smaller businesses offer organic, non GMO corn, and are even reintroducing forgotten ‘heritage’ breeds.
Another concern is whether or not corn is actually good for you. There is a common belief that the carbs in corn can lead to weight gain, and that it is unusually high in sugar. It is worth taking a look at nutrition information provided by the USDA when examining this claim (the following is based on one medium ear of sweet corn)
Nutrition information tends to be based on sweet corn, which is the variety most commonly eaten unprocessed, and as we can see, sweet corn does contain more sugar than most vegetables, but this is still relatively low compared to sugary drinks and snacks. Corn also contains a large percentage of carbohydrates, but these are slow-release, complex carbohydrates, that make the body feel full for longer. The total number of calories for our ear of corn is similar to that of an apple, making sweet corn an excellent way to provide your body with slow release energy, without taking on excess calories.
In fact, there are plenty of benefits to including corn in your diet. It is rich in vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B1 and iron, which help to make healthy red blood cells, folic acid, which protects unborn babies from birth defects, vitamin C for fighting disease, fibre for digestion, and potassium for maintaining healthy blood pressure. It is also a good source of antioxidants carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin, which protect your eyes from harmful UV rays, and help prevent the growth of cataracts.
Of course, if corn is heavily processed, it can lose some of its health benefits, and many corn-derived products contain high amounts of fats, salt and sugars. One way around this is to make your own tortillas and pop your own popcorn at home. That way you know exactly what goes into it, and it smells great too.
Is corn a vegetable?
Classifying corn can be difficult, given the variety of different ways it is prepared and eaten. Scientifically speaking, the definition of a vegetable is any edible part of a plant that is not a fruit or a seed, and as the edible part of corn is the seed, or kernel, corn is not a true vegetable. However, sweet corn is often prepared and eaten like a vegetable, and is usually referred to as such. The USDA counts corn on the cob and corn kernels as a vegetable, but products made from corn, like popcorn or cornflakes, are classed as a grain.
Is corn a grain?
A grain is a seed with three edible layers, known as the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. Corn kernels, the edible part of the plant, fit this description, and so corn is most accurately described as a grain. It’s calorific value and high carb content also make it nutritionally more similar to grain products like bread, than to vegetables.
Like wheat, barley and rice, corn is a member of the grass family, but unlike most grains, it does not contain gluten, making it one of the few grains suitable for sufferers of coeliac disease. However, like other grains, it does contain phytic acid, a so-called ‘anti-nutrient’ that can stop your body from absorbing certain minerals, so for the purposes of diets like Paleo, corn is very much classed as a grain.
Corn: how to cook and use it
The easiest way to enjoy corn is on the cob, nicely charred on the grill or the barbecue, and oozing with melted butter. But corn is extremely versatile, and can be used in a wide variety of colourful and tempting dishes. Canned sweet corn is a vital part of any store cupboard, always on hand to add a burst of sweetness and colour to your cooking. It is perfect paired with beans, tomatoes, peppers and coriander for a classic Mexican salad, or with chilli and Chinese spices in a bowl of warming and hearty soup.
If yellow isn’t your colour, try using rainbow corn in your recipes instead. Developed by Oklahoma farmer Carl Barnes as a way of reconnecting with his Cherokee roots, rainbow corn was bred from several heritage varieties and produces vibrant, jewel-like kernels in all the colours of the rainbow. It’s not available at the supermarket just yet, but you can purchase seeds online, and if you do have the time and space to cultivate some at home, it makes a beautiful addition to any plate of food.
Cornmeal, made from ground kernels, is another way to cook with corn. With its slightly sweet flavour and flour-like consistency, it is great for gluten-free baking. Why not try some deliciously buttery American corn bread, or some old brunch favourites with a twist, like chorizo-cheddar waffles or sweet corn cupcakes? Cornmeal can be used to make gluten-free desserts, too, so if you have a sweet tooth, you’re sure to be tempted by freshly baked gluten-free cookies, or a gooey banana polenta cake. Cornmeal can be mixed with olive oil and salt to make polenta, too. Try smoothing out and cutting into shapes for a delicious addition to savoury dishes, or enjoying it freshly made, fluffy and creamy, for an authentic Italian taste.